Chuck Berry, “Promised Land,” and the Promise of Freedom


By Andy Schwartz

Years ago, I’d heard that the lyrics to Chuck’s great ’64 single “The Promised Land” described a trip through the South along a route that closely paralleled that of the Greyhound bus trip undertaken by the original Freedom Riders of 1961. For purposes of comparison, I used the Wikipedia entry on this important moment in the US civil rights movement because (a) it didn’t seem grossly inaccurate and (b) I’m lazy. Check this out:

“I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia – California on my mind / I straddled that Greyhound and rode him into Raleigh, on across Caroline / We stopped in Charlotte, we bypassed Rock Hill, we never was a minute late / We was 90 miles out of Atlanta by sundown, rollin’ outta Georgia state…”

-> The Freedom Riders departed Washington D.C. on May 5, 1961. They encountered only minor harassment in Virginia and North Carolina, but future US Rep. John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill SC. Other riders were arrested in Charlotte NC; Winnsboro SC; and Jackson MS.

“We had motor trouble that TURNED INTO A STRUGGLE [My emphasis -- A.S.] halfway across Alabam / And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham…”

-> Upon arrival in Birmingham AL, the bus was attacked by a mob of KKK members aided and abetted by police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains.

“Right away I bought me a through train ticket, ridin’ ‘cross [right across?] Mississippi clean / And I was on that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham, smoking into New Orleans…”

-> Greyhound clerks in Montgomery AL told the Riders that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called national attention to the civil rights cause and wanting to make the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham.

“Somebody help me get out of Louisiana, just to help me get to Houston town / There are people there who care a little ’bout me and they won’t let the poor boy down / Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit, put luggage in my hand / And I woke up high over Albuquerque on a jet to the promised land…”

From this point, Chuck is traveling safely and comfortably by jet to Los Angeles. But that whole first half…Kind of amazing, eh?

Andy Schwartz was editor of New York Rocker from 1977-1982. He has also served as Director of Editorial Services for Epic Records, editor of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction night program, and research consultant for the Rock Hall’s Library & Archive Project. He co-authored two volumes of Icons of Rock, published in 2007,  has a long resume of freelance credits, and is currently provides editorial services to the Jazz Standard club in New York City. 

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